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On Tuesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally apologised to all those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or bullying while working in federal parliament.

When Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins came to Canberra

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On Tuesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally apologised to all those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or bullying while working in federal parliament. 

During his speech he directly addressed former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, whose advocacy  initiated the review that led to Morrison’s apology.

The very next day, Brittany Higgins, alongside former Australian of the Year Grace Tame delivered an explosive address to the National Press Club - questioning just how seriously we should take the Prime Minister’s words - and whether they will translate into action. 

Today, contributing editor to The Monthly Rachel Withers on why Scott Morrison’s apology might be too little, too late. 


Guest: Contributing editor to The Monthly Rachel Withers.

Read Transcript

 [Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally apologised to all those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or bullying while working in federal parliament. 

During his speech he directly addressed former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, whose advocacy  initiated the review that led to Morrison’s apology.

The very next day, Brittany Higgins, alongside former Australian of the Year Grace Tame delivered an explosive address to the National Press Club - questioning just how seriously we should take the Prime Minister’s words - and whether they will translate into action. 

Today, contributing editor to The Monthly Rachel Withers on why Scott Morrison’s apology might be too little, too late. 

It’s Friday, February 11. 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Rachel, it was almost a year ago that Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins quit her job and went public with claims that she'd been raped by a colleague in Parliament House. How would you describe the response to those allegations in the time since then from the government, but I suppose in particular from the prime minister?

RACHEL:
Yeah, so this first started back in February 2021, when Brittany Higgins spoke out about an alleged rape that had occurred in 2019 in a minister's office in Parliament House. She first told her story to news.com.au, and then she went on The Project that night to share her story in her own words. 

Archival tape -- Interview:
“I told him to stop.

Did he?

No.

How many times would you estimate you said to him to stop?

I felt like it was, like, on a loop endlessly… “

RACHEL:
And it was all over the news.

Archival tape -- News Anchor 1:
“More sexual assault allegations have emerged against the man accused of raping former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins-…”

Archival tape – News Anchor 2:
“The Australian has reported two more women have alleged they were attacked by the same former Liberal staffer-…”

Archival tape -- News Anchor 3:
“In the morning newspapers a third allegation of sexual assault. By afternoon, a fourth…”

RACHEL:
More women began coming forward with stories of sexual assault or harassment in Parliament House. And journalists began digging into the timeline of who had known about this incident in 2019 at the time.

But Scott Morrison himself did not seem to take Higgins allegations seriously from the very beginning. Perhaps he didn't think or realise that this was going to be such a big moment, but his office denied knowing about it at the time, which is a claim they've doubled down on ever since. And it wasn't actually until the day after Higgins came forward with her story that Morrison actually addressed it properly. And he told reporters that it was actually a conversation with his wife, Jenny, that it made him see things differently.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?”

RACHEL
He said that Jenny had a way of clarifying things and that he had since reflected on what Brittany had said and decided to act.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I said yesterday in the Parliament that we had to listen to Brittany. I have listened to Brittany.”

RACHEL:
And he then announced a bunch of reviews into processes and cultures in Parliament House  but the key one here was the workplace was a review into workplace parliamentary culture that was announced two weeks later, and that was run by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. 

And that's the one we're talking about this week, because it was published late last year, and one of its recommendations was that the parliament should make a statement of acknowledgement of the bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault that had been experienced by staff in Parliament. And so that acknowledgement is what we saw this week. 

RUBY:
Mm so that's what happened in Parliament on Tuesday. This public statement, this formal apology to everyone had experienced sexual assault or harassment or bullying. So can you tell me what was said exactly? 

RACHEL:
Yes. So the statement was delivered by the Speaker of the House, and then he handed over to the prime minister, who handed on to the leaders of the other parties and a representative from the crossbench. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I rise to enthusiastically support this acknowledgement and recognise all of those who are why we are here today and making this acknowledgement…”

RACHEL:
Scott Morrison's address is the one that I think a lot of the attention was on because he's the one who had got this so wrong from the start.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
And I particularly want to acknowledge what Brittany Higgins, whose experience, and importantly, courage is the reason why we are all here today. And I want to thank her for that. 

RACHEL:
And he also apologised to the surprise of many; it’s not exactly something Morrison is known for doing. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I am sorry. We are sorry. I'm sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here…”

RACHEL:
And also for all the other things that had happened to women and men in Parliament House 

And he said that perpetrators would be exposed and that the entire parliament needed to work to make it a better place.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“For those of us who are here now. We know we have that opportunity and we must and we can and we will do better.”

RUBY:
Mmm. And so, Rachel, listening to that speech, what did you think? Did it feel genuine to you? And did you get the sense that this moment could be a turning point when it comes to how seriously this issue was taken?

RACHEL:
Well, look, I'd say that the prime minister's use of the word ‘sorry’ was welcome here, although it was a passive apology that didn't really seem to extend to any of the things that he had personally done.

For example, he earlier undermined parts of his story, denying that she'd gotten a call from his private secretary to check in, which she said she did. He allegedly backgrounded against her partner, according to some journalists, implying that her partner had some sort of grudge to bear against the government. Although Scott Morrison's office found nothing when they looked into this. And on the subject of enquiries, his office dragged out an investigation into what they knew and when, and ultimately never completed it. 

And it was also quite hard to hear his apology as fully sincere, considering that the the women whose experiences had sparked this enquiry, the women who he was supposedly apologising to, weren't actually invited to the acknowledgement until the night before.

RUBY:
Right. So they didn't even score an invite to their own apology, Rachel… 

RACHEL:
That's right. Higgins wasn't initially invited to the event, nor were many of the other high profile victims: former staffers Josie Colls, Chelsea Potter, and Rachelle Miller. Miller, you may remember, accused her former boss Education Minister Alan Tudge of being abusive during the extramarital affair, and he admits to the affair but denies the abuse.

Archival tape -- RN Breakfast Host:
“Last minute organisation is underway to get former staffers who allege they've been bullied, harassed or assaulted inside Parliament this morning or an acknowledgement…” 

RACHEL:
She told RN Breakfast that she’d been informed of the apology last week, and was sort of waiting for an invitation, but no invitation ever came, before she tweeted about the fact that she hadn't been invited the day before. 

And then independent Zali Steggall, who is a member of the government's taskforce into these issues, then contacted Miller offering some spots in the gallery. 

So in the end, Higgins and Potter and Miller and Coles, along with activist Chanel Contos, were in the chamber for the apology. But it really prompts the question: how serious could the government have been about saying sorry if it didn't think to include the recipients of its apology in its planning?  

RUBY:
Yeah, I think that's a good point, Rachel, because it detracts from, I suppose, the sincerity of an act like this when you learn that the people who instigated it, the people who the apology is actually for weren't included… 

RACHEL:
Yeah, it just…it makes the whole thing feel very performative and like the apology was for the cameras and not for the actual victims. But I think really the main reason that we do instinctively dismiss these apologies and acknowledgements and grand sentiments out of hand, is that they're never actually backed up by any action from the government.

They're still not passing all the recommendations from Jenkins’ previous review into workplace culture, which was the Respect at Work report, which applied to all workplaces, and the government simply ignored the key recommendation from that.

And Morrison, who put these early mistakes down to being a bloke, and blokes don’t always get it. Actually continues to act like a bully towards women, despite having been called out on it again and again. 

All of this frustration, I think, bubbled to the surface when Brittany Higgins and former Australian of the Year Grace Tame spoke to the press club the very next day after the prime minister's apology.

In fact, the two of them had some pretty extraordinary things to say about the prime minister and the people around him who had tried to protect him.

Archival tape -- Laura Tingle:
“I welcome them both to the National Press Club today, and I’d ask Brittany Higgins to speak to us first.”

(applause)

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Rachel, on Wednesday, former staffer Brittany Higgins, as well as the outgoing Australian of the year, Grace Tame, gave a public speech at the Press Club in Canberra. What did they say?

RACHEL:
Yeah, so this was a highly anticipated double header and at the event, Higgins said that she found some of Morrison's language over the last year shocking and at times admittedly a bit offensive. But she did say that this actually wouldn't have mattered so much if his actions had demonstrated a commitment to change.

Archival tape -- Brittany Higgins:
“What bothered me most about the whole imagine if it were our daughters spill wasn't that he necessarily needed his wife's advice to help contextualise my rape in a way that mattered to him personally. All he could do, and that's how he realised it was a bad thing. I didn't want his sympathy as a father. I wanted him to use his power as prime minister.”

RACHEL:
And on the apology this week, her message was similar. She said that without action, words are meaningless. 

Archival tape -- Brittany Higgins:
“It was encouraging and an important sentiment, but I am cognisant that at this point in time, they are still only words. Actions are what matter.”

RACHEL:
And she said that unless all of the recommendations of the Jenkins review were implemented, that we're going to continue to see a toxic culture exist within parliament. 

But I'd say the even bigger revelations came from Grace Tame.

Archival tape -- Grace Tame:
“On that note…brace yourselves…On the 17th of August last year…”

RACHEL:
So Tame said that a senior member of a government funded organisation had contacted her last year and made a threatening phone call…

Archival tape -- Grace Tame:
“…from a senior member of a government funded organisation asking for my word…”

RACHEL:
…in which they asked her not to say anything-...

Archival tape -- Grace Tame:
“(...say anything) daming about the Prime Minister on the evening of the next Australian of the Year Awards.”

RUBY:
That's quite an allegation to make. 

RACHEL:
Yeah, so, Tame said on this call. This senior member of the organisation warned her not to criticise the prime minister ahead of last month's Australian of the Year awards.

Archival tape -- Grace Tame:
“You're an influential person. He'll have a fear, they said. Fear? What kind of fear, I asked myself. A fear for our nation's most vulnerable? A fear for the future of our planet…”

RACHEL:
And the reason they gave was that there was an election coming up.

RUBY:
Right. Well, Grace Tame obviously decided not to listen to this person, and it seems, I suppose, like their warning or request - however you want to frame it - it really backfired on them. 

RACHEL:
Yeah, absolutely. And she doubled down again in this press club address. She said that she made a conscious decision to stand up to evil and that she would continue to do so. 

Archival tape -- Grace Tame:
“As far as I'm concerned, you either fight it or you are a part of it.” 

RACHEL:
She was later asked what she had said at the time on the phone, but she wouldn't reveal that, saying that it doesn't matter now, and she refused to say which organisation it was. 

But it's since been reported that it was someone from the Australia Day council. The prime minister has hit out at whoever said it, saying that he didn't authorise it and has promised an investigation into who it was.

RUBY:
Hmm. OK. And so Rachel, going back to the beginning of this, to Scott Morrison's apology, this was clearly an attempt to at least publicly appear to be taking the issue of sexual harassment and abuse more seriously. It doesn't seem to have gone down well, and it certainly wasn't well received by the people who the apology was actually aimed at. So I wonder ultimately just how damaging you think this might be for Scott Morrison, particularly in the context of the upcoming election? 

RACHEL
I'm not sure that this is at the top of the average swing voters mind, if it ever was. There's a lot of other things on people's minds now, especially after the summer we've had the government wants to switch to talking about the economy and attacking labour. But there’s a lot of things going wrong for the government right now, and this is certainly adding to some of the character problems Morrison is having. 

I think one place that it really could make a difference and could be a vote switcher is in the electorates of the so-called moderate liberals who are being challenged by a raft of independents on integrity and climate, but also women's issues. 

You know, if this continues to snowball and if this is something that matters to the progressive liberal voters of inner Sydney and in Melbourne, then it could be something that we see play out, especially if Tame and Higgins do decide to get involved in the election. 

RUBY:
Rachel, thank you so much for your time.

RACHEL:
Thanks Ruby.

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***

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The federal government has paused its bid to pass it’s controversial religious discrimination bill prior to the next election.

 

The government has indicated that it will push for an inquiry into key parts of the bill after it was amended in the early hours of Thursday morning, to codify protections for gay and trans students.

 

**

 

And in NSW, data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre has found that socioeconomically disadvantaged communities were disproportionately fined during last year's Covid-19 Delta outbreak.

 

Towns including Walgett and Wilcannia, with large Indigenious populations received the most fines per capita during the outbreak.
 

 

**

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you next week.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today and the 2021 Mumbrella Publish Awards Columnist of the Year.

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